The Power—and Beauty—of Solar Energy

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Utility power plants are many things—sprawling, expensive, often polluting—but one thing they are not is beautiful. Power plants are the engines of modern society, but we’d rather they stay out of the way.

The Ivanpah solar thermal plant is something different. Soon to be completed in California’s Mojave Desert, Ivanpah will provide nearly 400 megawatts of electricity. It will do so with the sun, but the not the way you might expect. Solar photovoltaic panels—the sort usually seen on rooftops—convert sunlight directly into electricity. That’s elegant, but limited—each panel produces only a little bit of power, and that power stops flowing as soon as the sun disappears.

The solar thermal technology behind Ivanpah—which is being jointly developed by BrightSource Energy, NRG Energy and Google—uses thousands of mirrors to reflect sunlight. That light is collected in one of Ivanpah’s three solar towers, where the intense heat transforms water into steam. That steam is piped to a turbine that generates electricity. It’s the same basic technology behind a coal or natural gas plant—only the sun provides the heat.

Ivanpah also has the advantage of producing electricity on a much smoother curve than solar PV, which means it can keep generating power later into the day. But Ivanpah, which should go fully online before the end of the year, has something else: sheer beauty.

More Photography from Time